Live-Action Film Adaptations of Anime

In the mid-to-late 2000s, there were several announcements made about Hollywood studios acquiring the rights to adapt anime properties into live-action films. As of this writing, only two of those adaptations have made it to the big screen; the rest are essentially languishing in “development hell.” Let’s take a look at the various anime properties that have been acquired by Hollywood for a live-action treatment.

Dragon Ball
20th Century Fox acquired the rights to adapt Dragon Ball, and originally approached Stephen Chow to direct the film. He declined to direct, but took on a role as a producer. The film was ultimately directed by James Wong.

The live-action adaptation, which was titled Dragonball Evolution, was first screened in Japan and several other Asian countries on March 13, 2009. The film began showing in North American theaters on April 10, 2009. On its opening weekend in the United States, Dragonball Evolution came in at number eight at the box office with a gross of $4,756,488. In its second weekend, the film dropped to number eleven at the box office. The film ultimately grossed $9,362,785 in the United States and Canada, and earned $48,134,914 in foreign markets.

I had the “opportunity” to see this film when I checked out a copy of the DVD through the King County Library System after I had seen all five seasons of the original Dragon Ball anime series. I ultimately didn’t care for this live-action adaptation: I didn’t like how Goku was portrayed, the idea of Goku and Chi-Chi going to the same high school felt forced, Piccolo’s motivations aren’t entirely clear because he contradicts himself during the film, it’s illogical for a human to be working for Piccolo since he makes it clear during the film that he hates humans, and I especially hated how the kamehameha was turned into a “deus ex machina” (it’s a weapon, it can light torches, and it even has healing powers that bring Goku back from the brink of death!).

There have been rumors floating around that a second live-action Dragon Ball film is in the works, since the film performed well in Asian markets. I can only hope that if this rumored sequel ever does see the light of day, that it either never gets released in North America or that it’s a direct-to-video release.

Speed Racer
Larry and Andy Wachowski wrote and directed a live-action adaptation of the Speed Racer anime series. The film was released to American theaters on May 9, 2008. The film came in at number three on its opening weekend, behind Iron Man and What Happens in Vegas… The film grossed $18,561,337 in its opening weekend. In its second week, Speed Racer came in at number four at the box office, grossing $8,117,459. The film closed its run on August 1, 2008; it grossed $43,945,766 domestically and $93,945,766 worldwide. Unfortunately, this was below studio expectations, because the production costs for the film were estimated to be over $120 million.

I watched the live-action Speed Racer film on a DVD that I checked out through the King County Library System. There were changes made to the backstories for some of the characters, as well as for the origin of the Mach 5. One of the changes that I didn’t like was the fact that Sparky was portrayed as being older than Speed Racer, because it changed the dynamic between these two characters. I thought it worked better in the anime, when they were portrayed as being part of the same peer group. I also thought that Rex Racer’s disappearance was handled a little better in the anime than in the live-action film. However, the biggest thing I had a problem with was the fact that Spritle and Chim-Chim were even more annoying in the live-action film than they were in the anime.

One positive thing I can say about the film is that Mom Racer was actually given a character and a personality. In the anime, she was usually just “there,” and would usually only say something if she was commenting on how dangerous something was. Overall, though, the Speed Racer live-action film wasn’t necessarily a bad film, but it’s definitely better than Dragonball Evolution. But then again, almost anything would be better than Dragonball Evolution.

Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers
Back in the mid-1990s, Disney acquired the rights to produce a live-action film based on Star Blazers. A script that circulated on the internet reportedly featured a crew which was not named after anyone from the original show’s crew (either their original Japanese name or their English name); also, the script had the crew aboard a rebuilt United States battleship Arizona, rather than a rebuilt Yamato. Disney’s project never came to fruition.

In 2006, a report surfaced claiming that Benderspink Productions and producer Josh C. Kline were working on another live-action adaptation of the property; however, Kline’s adaptation does not seem to have gone anywhere. In February 2011, it was reported that David Ellison’s Skydance Productions was in negotiations to acquire the rights to produce an American live-action film adaptation; it was also reported that Christopher McQuarrie had been tapped to write the screenplay. As of this writing, no further information about this adaptation is available.

However, a Japanese live-action film adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato was produced, and it was released to Japanese theaters on December 1, 2010. The film debuted at number one at the Japanese box office, and it beat out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1). Unfortunately, as of this writing, I have not had the opportunity to see this live-action film adaptation.

In August 2007, Variety reported that Fox-based New Regency had picked up the rights for a live-action feature film version of Voltron. Mark Gordon spent three years developing the film, with Jim Young’s Animus Films funding the development. Gordon had been tapped to produce the film with Lawrence Inglee and Jordan Wynn. Justin Marks was given the task of writing the screenplay for this live-action adaptation. According to several reports, the storyline was described as a post-apocalyptic story set in New York City and Mexico, with five survivors of an alien attack banding together; they end up piloting five lion-shaped robots that combine to form Voltron.

On August 18, 2008, Relativity Media entered negotiations with New Regency to finance and produce the film, and Max Makowski was tapped to direct it. However, in November of 2008, World Events Productions (the company that produced the English version of the anime) was in a legal battle with Toei Company Ltd. over the movie rights.

Then on March 8, 2011, it was reported that Relativity Media and World Events had entered into a bidding war on which company would make the film. It was also announced that Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer would be writing a new script. While I haven’t heard any details on how Donnelly and Oppenheimer would handle the story, I hope they can come up with something better than what Marks tried to do in his version of the script.

On July 11, 2011, Atlas Entertainment and Relativity Media announced they would be bringing Voltron to the big screen, and that Relativity Media would be serving as a distributor. As of this writing, it appears that the Voltron live-action adaptation is still languishing in “development hell.”

In September 2007, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story announcing that Warner Bros. Pictures had acquired the feature rights for Robotech. It was reported that Tobey Maguire would serve as a producer for the live-action film, and that he was also interested in having the lead role. From that report, it appeared the film would be based off the Macross section of the series; this is the section that features such characters as Rick Hunter, Lisa Hayes, Lynn Minmei, Captain Henry Gloval, Claudia Grant, etc.

In June 2008, it was reported that Charles Roven and Akiva Goldsman would be serving as producers alongside Tobey Maguire, and that Lawrence Kasdan would be writing the script. However, in November 2008, it was announced that Alfred Gough and Miles Millar were tapped to write the screenplay.

During the Robotech fan panel at Anime Expo 2008, Tommy Yune reported that the live-action film was going to be a re-imagining of the original Robotech universe; this would include updated mecha and character designs and setting the story to take place several years later.

Due to undisclosed reasons, Roven is no longer working on this project. On June 23, 2009, it was announced that British television writer Tom Rob Smith took over screenwriting duties for the film adaptation. On January 24, 2013, it was reported that director Nic Mathieu is in negotiations to direct this film.

As of this writing, there is no further information on the status of the live-action film adaptation of Robotech. I can only guess that this adaptation is also languishing in “development hell.”

In 2002, it was reported that that Warner Bros. had acquired the rights to adapt Akira into a live-action film. Since the announcement, there has been a revolving door of writers, directors, and producers attached to the project. Between 2008 and 2011, there were four different writers, four different directors, and four producers attached to the film. Also, between 2009 and 2011, several rumors floated around in regards to casting.

On October 24, 2011, a new casting call for the live-action adaptation of Akira was posted on Actors Access, just days after Warner Bros. gave approval yet again for production of the film.

In January 2012, Variety and Deadline reported that pre-production on the film has been shut down, but that the film itself is not done. According to Variety’s report, Warner Bros. wanted the current script draft to be reworked. As of this writing, there has been no further word on the progress of this project.

Ghost in the Shell
In 2008, it was reported that DreamWorks had acquired the rights to produce a live-action film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. From things that have been said, it appears this adaptation will be based on the manga rather than the anime.

Steven Speilberg is set to direct the film, and Avi Arad and Steven Paul have been confirmed as producers. Jamie Moss was the original scriptwriter hired for the project; in October 2009, it was announced that Laeta Kalogridis replaced Moss as the writer.

As of this writing, there is no further word on the progress of this live-action adaptation.

Battle Angel Alita
In 2010, a live-action adaptation of Battle Angel Alita was in pre-production, with James Cameron set to direct the film. According to reports, the adaptation would cover the first fourt volumes of the manga series. If the first film is successful, then Cameron would try to do a trilogy.

As of this writing, the film is set to be released in 2017.

In February 2012, Variety reported that Warner Bros. acquired the rights to produce a live-action film adaptation of Bleach.

According to the report, Dan Mazeau would be writing the script. Also, the report stated that Peter Segal, Michael Ewing, Masi Oka, and Jason Hoffs would be serving as producers on the project. No director had been announced, although the report said there was the potential for Peter Segal to take on directing duties.

As of this writing, only two live-action film adaptations of anime properties have actually been released to North American theaters, with seven other potential films in the pipeline. Both of the films that were released weren’t exactly box office successes, so it really does make me wonder why studios are still seem to be eager to try to produce more of these live-action adaptations.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately in some cases, some of these projects have been languishing in “development hell” for so long, that they may never see the light of day.

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Fleming, Mike. “Hughes Bros Move From ‘Book of Eli’ To ‘Akira’.” February 10, 2010.
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Davis, Lauren. “Battle Angel Alita Could Be Next for the Avatar Treatment.” July 31, 2009.
Daniels, Hunter. “BATTLE ANGEL Update from James Cameron.” January 31, 2011.
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Additional posts about the anime included in this post:

One comment

  1. Lesley Aeschliman · December 3, 2012

    Anime News Network is reporting today (December 3, 2012) that live-action Star Blazers film is still in negotiations. According to ANN’s report, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie said the following when asked about the status of the film during an interview: “Yes, the longest rights negotiation of planet Earth. I think we’re very close to finally… there’s one last piece in the chain that needs to be worked out and when that’s done I would immediately be able to start writing that.”

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